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Racing the clock

As fire departments' resources are stretched, response times suffer

Parked in their high-ceilinged bays at the Berlin firehouse, the big red engines are ready to roll. Safety gear lines the walls, waiting to be grabbed.

When a fire breaks out, everything will be here -- except firefighters.

Volunteers will have to race to the station from their jobs or homes to jump on the trucks. And that takes time, which is precious when flames are spreading.

Fire Chief Robert Tervo, who commands a $78,000 budget, says his volunteers are dedicated and well trained. He also acknowledges that the town, which is feeling the strains of growth, could use some full-time firefighters.

"I can only give you the best fire department you're willing to pay for," he said.

Berlin, a small town that still fights fires the old-fashioned volunteer way, fell short of national standards for fire department response times in a Boston

A map depicting fires and response times in local communities. Page 10

Globe analysis. But it was far from alone among communities west of Boston. Fourteen other communities also did not make the grade, including some that have full-time firefighters.

The analysis took 17 years of reports on fires and checked communities against National Fire Protection Association standards, which call for firefighters to arrive at 90 percent of fires within six minutes or less.

The analysis also found that fire response times, even among communities with a passing grade, are getting longer, raising questions about the local commitment to rapid response as more houses are built and population grows in the region. About half of the Globe West fire departments saw declines in their on-time rates in the most recent four years of the study.

"We've been getting by with the skin of our teeth," said Plainville Fire Chief Edwin Harrop, whose department is expanding from eight firefighters to 12.

The reports were submitted by cities and towns to the state and federal governments. The analysis focused on building fires from 1986 to 2002 and did not include incidents such as false alarms or ambulance calls. The six-minute standard allows one minute for the dispatcher to collect information, one minute for firefighters to get their gear and get to the truck, and four minutes to drive to the fire.

Twenty-two of the 37 communities in the Globe West circulation area met the standards.

A number of factors appeared to be responsible for the widely varying response times. Departments with full-time firefighters, who can immediately hop onto their trucks when an alarm is sounded, generally perform better.

Departments with fire stations that cover smaller areas also typically perform well, apparently because firefighters start that much closer to the scene. When plotted on a map, some of the fires with the worst response times are located near the edges of towns, far from a centrally located station.

Berlin firefighters arrived on time, or within six minutes, to about 44 percent of the fire calls they received between 1986 and 2002.

Officials in the small town of about 2,500 people say the volunteers do a difficult job, first undergoing extensive training, then dropping whatever they are doing to rush to fires and risk their lives. Many have served for decades.

"You do it because you want to help people," said Deputy Chief Bruce Ricard.

But the officials also acknowledge the limitations inherent in a "call" department.

Jack Peltier, the department safety officer, said Berlin has tried to compensate with up-to-date equipment, including trucks that carry water and firefighting foam that helps suppress fires faster than water does.

And with two commercial developments now being planned in town, Tervo is seeking funds for several full-time firefighters to staff the station during daylight hours.

Geography is a factorIn Hopkinton, which has full-time firefighters, the on-time rate was just over 69 percent, according to the analysis. In this case, the town's geography appeared to be a major factor.

Hopkinton has only one regularly staffed station in the center of a town of about 28 square miles, a much larger area than stations usually cover, according to the Globe analysis. A second station in the town's Woodville section is staffed only occasionally.

Hopkinton officials say they have been taking steps to improve fire service, despite tight budget times.

Eric Sonnet, chairman of Hopkinton's Board of Selectmen, and Fire Chief Gary Daugherty said they were pleased with the progress that has been made. Eight years ago, Daugherty oversaw eight full-time firefighters. Today, that number is up to 23.

"We'll cut almost anything before public safety," said Sonnet.

Why is response time important? Fires generally double in size every minute they are allowed to burn out of control.

Many fire departments point to sprinklers and smoke detectors, as well as public education, saying they have all helped cut down on the number of serious fires in recent years.

Southborough Fire Chief John Mauro noted, however, that those devices do not excuse firefighters from showing up promptly.

"It keeps the fires smaller, but somebody still has to respond to them," said Mauro, whose firefighters arrived on time to 88 percent of fires.

Catastrophes do happen. Three elderly siblings, including one with Alzheimer's disease, died in a Boylston house fire in 1994 that was caused by discarded pipe tobacco. Their 84-year-old sister was the sole survivor. According to an incident report, it took the town's volunteer department 10 minutes to arrive.

Fire Chief Joe Flanagan said firefighters later determined that 45 minutes had elapsed before the family had even called 911. "By the time we left the station, we could see the glow in the sky," he said.

Recognizing that the town's needs are expanding, Boylston has recently taken steps to bulk up its fire services, making the chief's job a full-time position. This spring, Flanagan said, he intends to ask Town Meeting for money to hire another full-time staffer.

"The more permanent people you can put on, the better you can do on response times," said Flanagan. He said the six-minute standard would be tough for any volunteer department to reach.

Boylston had an on-time rate of 17.6 percent, but that was based on only a small number of fires -- 17 over the 17-year study period.

Financial losses add upEven fires that are not fatal can still lead to heavy financial losses.

A 2001 house fire on Derby Road in Berlin caused $750,000 in damage. It took firefighters 10 minutes to show up. Tervo said he believes that, because it was a windy day, the house could not have been saved no matter how fast firefighters responded. The homeowner said he was satisfied with the Fire Department's response.

That same year in neighboring Bolton, which also has a volunteer department, a home sustained $300,000 in damage after teenagers living there stoked a fireplace with gasoline. Firefighters did not arrive for 12 minutes.

The Globe analysis found that Bolton arrived to only half of its fires within six minutes. But Bolton Fire Chief John Stephenson, who has been a firefighter for 45 years, said there has been no movement locally to change the call tradition. "It is a time-consuming process, but that's the way we live," he said.

Newton, a city of about 85,000, was the highest-scoring department in the Globe West circulation area, with a 99.3 percent on-time rate. Its score is understandable, given that the city spends some $13 million annually on its fire department, or about $700,000 per square mile, far more than most other departments.

Money does not guarantee a perfect on-time record, however.

Watertown, a city of about 33,000, spent $6.3 million on fire protection, or roughly $1.5 million per square mile. With a 94.4 percent on-time rate it was tied for 13th overall, behind other communities that spent less.

Watertown Fire Chief Mario Orangio said his is a densely populated city where traffic can snarl streets, slowing his trucks.

Simultaneous callsMultiple calls at the same time, including emergency medical calls when firefighters are called to assist, are a challenge for departments and can also mean slower response times.

"What we're geared for is one at a time," said Franklin Fire Chief Gary McCarraher, whose department had an 82.5 percent on-time rate.

A 2001 lightning storm in Franklin caused four house fires in one night, he said, including one that resulted in $200,000 worth of damage. It took firefighters 10 minutes to arrive at that blaze.

Many departments depend on aid from other communities or volunteers in such situations, but calls for assistance are often not made until the town's first responders arrive at the scene.

Even though his department can count on help from neighboring towns, Ricard, the Berlin deputy chief, said it is never certain how many local volunteers will respond to the call.

"In all honesty, I couldn't tell you at any given moment how many people would show up," he said.

"Whenever you're desperate for help, it always seems like, 'My God, what's taking so long?' "

David Marble, chairman of the Berlin selectmen, said public safety is a primary concern for his board, but he also noted an interest in preserving the town's character. When he was young, he said, residents from all over town showed up to help put out fires.

"I'm trying to hang on to that tradition without sacrificing anyone's safety," said Marble.

Some towns are trying to fix what they perceive as problems in their departments, even though the Globe analysis suggested that their response times were already satisfactory.

Plainville's on-time rate -- 96.4 percent -- ranks high among communities in the western suburbs. But the town is expanding its staff and budget anyway.

"To me, it's like a car insurance policy," said Harrop, the chief. "You're paying for your protection."

Emily Shartin can be reached at eshartin@globe.com.

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